The Missouri Compromise.
ALIGHT RAIN FALLS as I pull up to Jewell Cemetery, where a nineteenth-century Missouri governor lies buried. Because of its famous resident, the cemetery was designated an historic site some time ago. I'm not here to see Charles Hardin's grave.
I open the black metal gate and walk past tall headstones to the back. Under sweeping tree branches I count 41 markers, simple grey stone blocks that protrude some six inches up from the ground. I test one to see how solidly it is planted. It doesn't budge. I can't tell if these markers constitute both head and footstones, that is, if they mark 41 bodies, or something closer to half that number. The plaque by the entrance of the cemetery writes nothing of the slaves buried here, and the stone blocks offer no insight as to who lies beneath. Were these men or women? Old or young? What were their names?
My dog whines nervously at the sound of traffic rushing along a nearby thoroughfare as I double back toward the gate to walk amongst the named dead, some of them certainly slave owners. I read inscriptions and note the ways in which different stones have weathered, as well as how many young people are interred here. I calculate their ages: 28,23,21,26,17, and 1. I find the graves of several infants.
WHEN MY HUSBAND AND I ANNOUNCED to our Canadian friends and family that we had accepted university positions and were moving to Missouri, their reactions were of a kind. Such a move, "to the middle of Nowhere," seemed both impossible and ill-advised. "Who'd you kill?" joked our neighbour from two doors down. I forced a laugh in response, and then returned home to finish packing up our library.
Missouri is flyover country: Middle America, the Midwest, the Upper South. Smack in the centre of the continent, our new hometown of Columbia (every state seems to have a city by this name) lies halfway to everywhere in North America. It turns out that halfway is pretty far in practice: to drive anywhere at all is a big commitment. "When I moved to Missouri," a poet colleague once told me over lunch, "I wondered how it was possible to live so far from the ocean," he paused, then continued: "But life in Columbia is easy." The dreadlocked and soft-spoken writer ("two generations from slavery," he told me that same day) had come of age in a commune in Berkeley, California. He'd changed his name from the one he'd inherited to something he chose for himself. Well, if he could live here, right in the Centre, I figured, so could I.
The most recent data on Canadian writers' incomes show that authors north of the border earn an average of $12,000 from their writing. (1) Many earn less. So, with a view to fending off poverty, writers hustle: we run writing workshops; we edit; I know one writer who teaches yoga. In my case, after publishing two books and scores of essays and taking on small contracts for years, I decided to throw myself back into the academic job market after a longish hiatus and see if I could land a position teaching creative writing at a university. I applied for a handful of jobs in Canada without snagging so much as an interview. When I applied for several more in the United States, a small miracle occurred: I was offered a tenure-track position.
I now work as a professor of English at the University of Missouri. On a campus that doubles as a botanical garden, I teach creative writing to advanced undergraduate and graduate students. I supervise and mentor PhD candidates who write creative dissertations, that is, books. In Canada, by contrast and for better or worse, we have only one such creative PhD program. (2) As far as I can tell, my genre of creative nonfiction is not on offer there. So, when friends ask me if I plan to return home, I answer that I would love to, that I would do so in a heartbeat, but that my job-this dream job-does not exist in Canada.
"I didn't know where Missouri was, so I looked it up. It's the belly button of the United States. Why would you move there?" These sentences arrived in an email from my cousin, also an academic who moved thousands of kilometres from her home for a teaching position. When I arrived at St Louis's airport for my on-campus interview (universities typically have three finalists visit, having culled this short list from applications that can number in the hundreds), I watched as a large man boarded the airport shuttle bus to Columbia. Boisterous and friendly, he was on his way home from a trip to Hawaii, where he'd met some Canadians. "They said it was minus forty degrees in Edmonton. Why would anyone live in a place like that?" he asked, incredulous. He posed the question to no one in particular, and I said nothing in response, even though I'd given a reading in the Alberta capital only a couple of weeks before. My cousin, the one who asked me why I would move to the belly button of America, now lives in Edmonton.
So MUCH of Missouri has surprised us. On our second night in the new house, we marvelled at a moth's wings pressed up against our kitchen window, their span as big as the palm of my hand. On hot summer and warm autumn nights, the oaks outside our bedroom window chatter with katydids, leaf-green insects related to grasshoppers. (3) Theirs is a drone I'd never heard before moving here. Only yesterday did I finally see one in the flesh (carapace?) after I followed a chirping sound to my darkened laundry room. It fell silent as soon as I flipped the light, but an emerald body glowed against the room's white door. After gathering the creature up in a towel, I freed the katydid outside. "Go home," I whispered.
Missouri is lush green, but it is also muddy. Our great river, named for this state (or is it the opposite?), runs brown and opaque all year round. In fall, huge woodpeckers emerge, and I am surprised to see that the cartoon birds of my childhood TV programs sprang not from an artist's imagination, but from nature. Here too, I observe bluebirds for the first time. From treetop perches, owls screech eerily, and hummingbirds visit us daily, often duelling for the right to drink from the hanging vase by our deck. Once the bees discover the feeder, they gorge themselves, taking in so much of the sweet red nectar that they turn rose-coloured and then fall to the ground, too full to fly. In my garden, weeds shoot up three feet overnight, and our neighbourhood's long field grasses teem with insects. Here too, for the first time, I have pulled blood-swollen ticks out of my husband, out of my dog, and out of my own skin. "I never expected there to be so much life here," my husband says again and again over our first Missouri year.
Scholars, like my classicist husband (and now, I suppose, like me), belong to a radically nomadic professional class. Whether or not they realize it, when graduate students embark on a PhD program, they are setting foot on a path that will force them to make a choice: the profession or home. Because when jobs in your field total seven in a given year in all of North America, and you have the good fortune of being offered one of them, you must move for your work or abandon it. This can be awkward to explain to relatives who innocently ask, over holiday meals, why you can't just work at the University of Toronto.
Until now, writers have perhaps had slightly more agency than young academics: we could write from wherever we were or wanted to be. But the past fifteen years have seen an astonishing compression of the publishing industry: advances have shrunk or disappeared entirely; book tours have turned to blog tours as publicity budgets have dwindled for all except the biggest and most mainstream titles; midlist authors fall to the bottom of the heap and struggle to make a place for the kinds of books that once found a steady readership; beginning authors increasingly find themselves squeezed out of traditional publishing entirely.
The landscape has changed so drastically that many formerly successful writers are finding it tough to make ends meet. Case in point: those Canadian creative writing teaching positions I applied for? At least one of those jobs went to a writer whose book was featured in a national radio reading club of sorts. Whereas, until recently, that author had managed to make a living solely from publishing books and magazine articles, even he, it seems, has felt the need for a steady day job. Word has it that he beat out an equally famous national award winner with high-powered literary representation.
So, how could I, in my anonymity and with my quirky and slightly egg-headed books, possibly compete? With this realization, my Missouri offer revealed itself for the blessing it was. No more apologies or justifications for the move, I decided. Only gratitude and grace.
BUT OVER THESE MONTHS of tracking what the world has to tell me about Missouri, I have most often found its assessments dismissive and even harsh. An example: in his memoir The Ticking Is the Bomb, American writer Nick Flynn describes learning, in childhood, that his father is in prison. "From the map on the wall," he writes, "the one you stare at when you're supposed to be listening, you know Missouri is in the middle of nowhere." So far, with a hundred or so pages still to go, it's the only mention of Missouri in a book about New York City, Istanbul, Rome, and Abu Ghraib. Flynn's use of this phrase, "in the middle of nowhere," betrays a notion, I think, that some places matter and others don't. That some places are worthy of attention, and others aren't.
These are not ideas I subscribe to. I, for one, come from a long line of Nowheres: starting with rural Lithuania (where my family has its roots), continuing on to a western Toronto suburb (where I spent my childhood), over to the southern shore of the Saint Lawrence River (where I raised my son for the first years of his life), the rural Maltese island of Gozo (a beloved sabbatical destination), and ending right here, for now, in Nowheresville, Missouri. Except that, truth be told, none of these places are Nowhere. Nowhere ever is. Not even here.
My husband recounts that in his first class at the University of Missouri, he tried to connect to one student by remarking that he understood what it was like to come from a place that you rarely read about in books or saw onscreen. "You see, I too am from the Middle of Nowhere." He was trying to say, "I get it." The student paused for a moment, considered my husband's tacit judgment of her home, and said, "Well, except for Mark Twain." Missouri, of course, is Twain's birthplace and sometimes literary landscape. Missouri, she was saying, is Somewhere, after all.
A few weeks ago, in Ferguson, Missouri, a so-called urban suburb of St Louis (a 90-minute drive from our college town), police gunned down an unarmed 18-year-old boy named Michael Brown. He was, importantly, African American. Protests ensued and continue still. One morning, after waking to the seventh day of Ferguson headlines on National Public Radio, I noted aloud how strange it was to find Missouri suddenly in the news. How quickly things change. How drastically centres shift with new points of view. "The thing is," my husband called out from the shower, "we are actually in the middle of everything now. In every way."
A FEW WEEKS after my first visit to Jewell Cemetery, I return with a student, an award-winning poet. I once asked where her home was, and she answered, "I'm a traveller. I'm rootless." It is raining again as I guide her straight back to the slaves' grave markers she's asked me to show her. I watch as she makes a sketch in a Moleskine notebook of the stones' layout. At each one, since my last visit, someone has placed flowers: tiny gladioli-like blossoms and sunflowers made of plastic and a fabric that is not silk, but synthetic. Even so, the offerings are beautiful in their way, glowing in the day's gloom.
The student walks between the graves, moving her arms slowly. She flies, dances amongst the dead. In an essay for my class, she will note that such enslaved Africans were buried with their heads facing West, so that they would not have to turn around to hear Gabriel blow his trumpet. (4) Her text tells the story of a poem's evolution, and it explores notions of literary and spiritual inheritance. Those who lie buried here listening for the archangel's call came to this continent from Africa, perhaps via Haiti, as so many of Missouri's largely francophone slaves did, in the hulls of ships. Traders sold them at slave markets in cities like St Louis. Masters, like those who lie at the front of this cemetery, gave them names that had nothing to do with who they were or whence they came. Some of the slaves' descendants, like my poet colleague from Berkeley, have shaken off those rootless names, but even this gesture, strong and defiant as it is, cannot reconstruct what is lost. Over time, memories of homelands and languages have vanished. There is no way to remember.
My student turns to me and asks: "How do I trace my way back when I don't know where back is?" She speaks of regret. She writes of grief. For her (you), I write, as I think my way through our conversations, perhaps there is no way home. No, she answers, correcting me. I don't want to claim this yet. I am still defining home.
HALFWAY TO EVERYTHING, neither truly North nor South, and neither East nor West, this state best illustrated its political and geographic ambivalence through the Missouri Compromise of 1820. The agreement allowed for Missouri's entry to the Union, but as a slave state. Civil War era Missouri families found themselves divided by loyalties to Secessionists and Unionists. Missourian guerrillas called Bushwhackers (often Confederate) and (mostly Unionist) Kansan Jayhawkers did battle in forests and sacked communities they suspected of betrayal. I'm told there are towns along the Kansas-Missouri border where the wounds of those nineteenth-century raids and forced exiles have not yet healed. The shooting and protests in Ferguson remind us of other hurts and hatreds that remain.
As for me, through a self-chosen exile, I have arrived at my own Missouri compromise: it is here, in the belly button of America, that I can write my books and save for my son's education; that I can teach what I love and welcome visiting authors to a university campus in bloom; it is here that I can learn from my students and stand on my own two feet. Do I miss my home? Yes. I miss the sharpness of the cold air atop Owl's Head Mountain in winter. I miss my dear friend Marie-Josee's dinners that mixed French and English with red wine and salad. I miss the sound of smooth rocks clacking underfoot as I walk near my in-laws' house along Lake Ontario's shore, the same waterline I explored as a child. Sometimes, I miss it all so much that I ache.
But then I stop. I reflect, and I shake it off. I remember to count this Missouri compromise amongst my greatest blessings. For here, in this place of cemeteries, unhealed wounds, muddy rivers, and freeways that stretch for thousands of miles in every direction, I never expected to find so much life.
(1) This figure comes from the Writers' Union of Canada, www.writersunion.ca.
(2) At the University of Calgary.
(3) A colleague tells me that the word "katydid" is also a regional term for cicada.
(4) Monica Hand, "Genealogy of a Poem," unpublished manuscript, 2014.
JULIJA SUKYS' most recent book is Epistolophilia: Writing the Life of Ona Simaite (2012). She is an assistant professor of English at the University of Missouri, where she teaches creative writing.
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|Date:||Mar 22, 2015|
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